COARSEGOLD – Driving back into Yosemite Lakes Park early Wednesday morning, Sept. 2, Jennifer Clark did not expect to see signs of trouble. She’s the director of the after-school program at Yosemite Lakes Community Church. Still wearing pajamas, Clark was on her way home to get ready for work after dropping her son at school. She passed by church and noticed an open door where no door should be open.
“The After-School Child-Care Program building had been broken into,” explains Pastor Brenda Heckman, Children’s Pastor at the popular inter-denominational church for the past 16 years. “They broke the front window out and that was the point of entrance.”
Pastor Heckman says an unknown number of suspects trashed the rooms where the after-school programs take place, pouring large-size pantry items from bleach to applesauce all over game tables, causing thousands of dollars worth of damage while destroying valuables including electronics, appliances, church property, and even toys.
Unable to rip the big flatscreen TV off the wall, they smashed it instead. A window was broken, a door was kicked in. Thieves placed the toaster oven inside the microwave, pressed the button, and started a fire that flashed up the wall behind it, according to the pastor.
“A CD radio was found outside in the parking lot, along with Legos spread everywhere. They stole $40 in quarters. Damage is estimated in excess of $5,000, making this a felony.”
Sometime during the rampage, before nuking the toaster oven, the as-yet-unidentified perpetrators apparently stopped long enough to consume pizza rolls from the church fridge.
Madera County Sheriff’s deputies were called to the scene, and able to dust for fingerprints on the TV and elsewhere, Pastor Heckman adds. It’s unknown at this time whether the suspects’ prints are in the system, as an investigation is ongoing.
“We recovered some physical evidence at the scene and the investigation will continue,” says Lt. Bill Ward. “We have no solid leads at this point.”
Some 35 kids from kindergarten through 6th grade attend the church’s after-school program. They come from Spring Valley, Rivergold and Coarsegold Elementary schools, places where there’s no longer any adequate funding for proper after-school programs, leaving parents and kids in the lurch.
So, the church steps in to pick up the slack with three employees to care for the children. The program is open as a community service: five days a week and many holidays, open every afternoon until 6 p.m. The cost per child per hour? Just three dollars.
Yosemite Lakes Community Church itself is also well-attended.
“We have anywhere between 6oo to 700 parishioners in two Sunday services each week, and many community outreach programs, including youth department skateboarding. We do that so our little community isn’t bored and doesn’t get into trouble.”
$40 in quarters was taken on Wednesday, coins that program director Jennifer Clark uses to teach math.
Once the Sheriff’s deputy had taken a report, the small staff onsite began cleaning up the extreme mess, wanting to complete the onerous task before kids arrived. As luck would have it, Wednesday is an early release day for one of the schools, and the children came in around 1:30 p.m.
This turned out to be a teaching opportunity, the pastor says. Jennifer Clark told the youngsters a story, as she does nearly every day, weaving bible wisdom throughout. This time, Clark spoke of people and the choices we make, good and bad. Rather than reeling from the insult and loss of the vandalism, the caregiver turned a negative into a positive. They talked about ways they could help.
From offers of books to Legos, a dollhouse and a microwave, the group re-grouped. In the end, “every kid said they had something at home they wanted to donate back to the after-school program.” They prayed for whoever broke in.
The church has insurance, but what’s really reassuring is the response from the community as word of the injustice spread and photos were shared via social media. An offer of substantial reward came on Thursday, Pastor Heckman notes.
Lead Pastor Cody Gunderson confirmed that an anonymous gentleman called and offered a reward of $1,000 for information leading to the arrest of whoever is responsible for the crimes committed sometime before Wednesday morning when Jennifer Clark noticed the open door.
Pastor Gunderson added that anyone who wants to help out in any way is “A-okay” to do so, and Yosemite Lakes Community Church is grateful to the community for its support.
Anyone with information is encouraged to contact the church or the Madera County Sheriff’s Office at (559) 675-7770.